Guest post By Marcie Flinchum Atkins
If you are a writing teacher, the only thing you need in your teacher toolbox is a few good books. We spend a lot of time as reading teachers making sure students are equipped with “just right” texts to read, but it’s just as important that we utilize authentic texts to help them learn to write.
If we want students to become good writers, we need to show them what good writing looks like. Using mentor texts in your classroom is a way to do that.
What is a mentor text?
A mentor text is a exemplary text used as a model for student learning. Instead of talking to kids about writing descriptions and expecting them to begin to write a description, show them how published writers use descriptions. We teach them to read like writers. We want students to learn to read for pleasure, and good readers will pick up on good writing techniques, but they will benefit even more with direct instruction. When they are writing, we want them to see how the pros stitch a story together.
Athletes study the techniques of the pros, and writers should study the techniques of the pros as well.
Where do I find mentor texts?
Start with your classroom library. You probably have books that you’ve accumulated from Scholastic Book Clubs bonus points or the ones that you bought with your meager salary. These are probably the books you know well. Use the books you’ve read as read-alouds, the books you’ve read in small groups, literature circles, or in whole group instruction.
The school and public libraries also have thousands of books. They’re stocked with newer books and classic books that you can use. ADDED NOTE: Of course, your school librarian is an invaluable resource and you should consult with him/her first!
How can I use mentor texts?
These are just some topics that I use mentor texts for:
- Word choice—including vivid verbs, specific vocabulary, sensory words
- Word play—onomatopeoia, puns, figurative language, made up words
- Description—including descriptions of setting and characters
- Beginnings and Endings
- Organization of text—especially useful in non-fiction
- Sentence Variety
Tips for Using Mentor Texts
- Use picture book text with older readers. Picture books are some of the best examples of word choice available. Picture books writers have to be selective with their words, so they are perfect for teaching word play and word choice. Picture books are also short, so they can be utilized in lessons that only span one class session.
There are dozens of teaching resource books out there that just focus on using picture books to teach writing skills. See my website for some of my favorite mentor texts).
I am also including a sample lesson plan using a Darcy Pattison’s WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS, a non-fiction picture book that can be used as a mentor text.
- Use familiar books. If you use books you and your students are already familiar with, then they are not reading for comprehension as much. They can then concentrate on the way the story is put together. For example, my students read BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo. I did the usual reading skills with the book. Instead of collecting the book when we finished, I let them hang onto it, and we used it for several writing skills. When we talked about setting and how writers describe setting in their stories, students were so familiar with BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE that they were able to quickly find different setting descriptions to use as mentors from DiCamillo’s book. This also makes life easier for you when you are selecting books. There is no need to invest in new books. Use the ones that you already have and are familiar with.
- Use an excerpt from a book they haven’t read. It will be like showing a book trailer. If you entice them with highlights, they will want to read more. I use excerpts from Laura Amy Schlitz’s THE NIGHT FAIRY and Ingrid Law’s SAVVY to show students the difference that verb choices can make in creating pictures in the reader’s mind. I don’t teach these books except as mentor texts. Within minutes of using the books as mentor texts, students are making a waiting list of people who want to read the books.
What young basketball player wouldn’t love to learn how to play basketball by watching Michael Jordan? Young writers have many professional writers to mentor them. All they have to do is open up a favorite book and have a teacher help show them the way.
Marcie Flinchum Atkins teaches fourth graders to write using mentor texts and trains teachers on how to use mentor texts in their classrooms. In the wee hours of the morning, she also writes picture books and novels. For more resources on mentor texts, check out her website: http://www.marcieatkins.com. Click on the “For Teachers” tab.